Manual Cinema is presenting a weirdly enchanting version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at Court Theatre. Nine puppeteers and musicians display the original story of Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature, combined with Mary Shelley’s own biography, on a multitude of screens with a multitude of equipment and instruments.
When you walk into a Manual Cinema show, you don’t see a dark stage, a drawn red curtain or a middle-class kitchen. Spread over the performance area is a huge array of old and new video, film, and projection equipment plus musical instruments, chimes, pipes and industrial noisemakers. It’s an amazing sight.
This world premiere of Frankenstein is devised by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace and Julia VanArsdale Miller with original music by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman.
The atmosphere is set and the story begins with performers projecting scenes and shadow figures from a crankie, an old handmade storytelling machine that projects images from a long illustrated scroll. As the stories of Frankenstein and Mary Shelley unfold, we see them projected both in live video and as shadow puppets, alternately and sometimes simultaneously on large projection screens. And we can always see the actor puppeteers working with the equipment when they are not performing on screen.
Shelley takes on the challenge to write a ghost story in competition with her husband, poet Percy Shelley, and his poet friend, Lord Byron. The result is her novel, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818. (That’s why we are celebrating this year with four different Chicago theater productions of Frankenstein, including an excellent staging at Remy Bumppo Theatre.)
We see Shelley (Fornace) writing as a shadow figure on the screen and the Frankenstein story develops as she writes. We meet the Frankenstein family, including the adopted daughter Elizabeth, and follow Victor Frankenstein (Fornace) as he goes to study chemistry and other sciences in Ingolstadt, Germany. There he develops a secret technique to create a living being out of nonliving matter and the result is the Creature (Miller), who comes to life and escapes from Frankenstein. The Creature roams the countryside, meeting people as in the original story and eventually taking on a more sinister form and actions.
Dr. Frankenstein returns to the family home in Geneva, where he and Elizabeth (Miller) become engaged to marry. The Creature also finds his way to the Frankenstein home, with the results we may remember from other Frankenstein stories.
The Manual Cinema production is magical, as I said in my opening, but it doesn’t tell the story in a linear way. If you haven’t seen other recent productions or read the Shelley novel recently, you may find the story hard to follow.
The Manual Cinema creators describe their invention as live cinema. They want the audience to have “agency” in viewing the show. In other words, at any moment, there are many screens or performers you can be watching. You can watch the live musicians play instruments or found objects; you can watch the puppeteers or you can watch an actor play one character and quick-change into another. This all goes on at the same time. So the production you see may be different than the one your companions are seeing.
The puppeteers are Fornace, Miller, Leah Casey, Sara Sawicki, and Myra Su. Musicians are Zachary Good, Deidre Huckabay, Lia Kohl and Peter Ferry. Scenic artists are Scott Gerwitz and Julie Ruscitti with additional puppet design by Emma Fisher, Myra Su and Kay Yasugi. The crankie was designed by Kumiko Murakami.
When the performance ends, the audience is invited to come on stage to get a closer look at the equipment and instruments and talk to the performers. We had a chance to speak with musician Zach Good, who played a bass clarinet, a contrabass clarinet and other instruments like a finger piano (or kalimba) and an idiopan, a small steel percussion instrument.
Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein continues at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., through December 2. Tickets are $50-74 for performances Wednesday-Sunday. Running time is two hours, including one intermission.